The Guardian has reproduced Yanis Varoufakis's introduction to Vintage Classics new publication of The Communist Manifesto. It is a literally a Long Read but it makes for an enlightening one.
The nail on the head moment is that capitalism was just in its infancy, when Mark and Engels were writing and into the early twentieth century, when Russia revolted and China, Cuba and the rest followed. Capitalism did not really get going until 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell and the establishment declared socialism dead.
Since then we have seen the rise and rise of globalisation as the omnipotent policy of poverty-ending capitalism. The global financial crisis of 2007-8 could not stop the establishment's presumption that globalisation is a force for good lifting the developing world out of poverty. Brexit and the rise of Trump and other right wing ideologues has emboldened globalisation's staunchest advocates to accept globalisation's faults without discrediting its fundamental premise. Varoufakis makes it clear that the fallout from globalisation is the inevitable consequence of rampant capitalism.
For most of the last two years, it has felt like The End of Times. Varoufakis writes:
"The ultra-rich are an insecure, permanently disgruntled clique, constantly in and out of detox clinics, relentlessly seeking solace from psychics, shrinks and entrepreneurial gurus. Meanwhile, everyone else struggles to put food on the table, pay tuition fees, juggle one credit card for another or fight depression. We act as if our lives are carefree, claiming to like what we do and do what we like. Yet in reality, we cry ourselves to sleep."
It rings true. My own social group is constantly balancing the need to make money (while supposedly doing jobs we like), with the demands of raising children (perfect children that fulfill all the wildest dreams we never quite managed, naturally). The juggling act becomes so stressful that we seek solace in retreats and therapy, meditating our way to solace away from the stresses of children, family, friends and life - all the things that should give us warmth, happiness and comfort.
Others seek their solace at the bottom of a bottle of champagne. They seek to dull the pain of a worthless existence, keeping up with the barrage of information emanating from Facebook, Twitter, Email, Text and television, while making enough money to pay the kids private school fees and then constantly ferrying them to clubs that fill the gaps in the education that they pay so much for and worry so much about.
Facing this 21st century information overload, it is easy to crave a return to simpler times. We look back to hunter-gatherer basics, while Nigel Farage and his cronies seek a return to an idealistic all-white fantasy of an independent green and pleasant land.
While Varoufakis takes inspiration from a 150-year-old text, he is looking forward, not back:
"We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organise politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism. In practical terms, this means treating the idea that there is no alternative with the contempt it deserves while rejecting all calls for a 'return' to a less modernised existence. There was nothing ethical about life under earlier forms of capitalism. TV shows that massively invest in calculated nostalgia, such as Downton Abbey, should make us glad to live when we do. At the same time, they might also encourage us to floor the accelerator of change."
And the middle classes are not ignored in this interpretation of Communism's key values:
"Thankfully, rereading the manifesto has offered some solace too, endorsing my view of it as a liberal text – a libertarian one, even. Where the manifesto lambasts bourgeois-liberal virtues, it does so because of its dedication and even love for them. Liberty happiness, autonomy, individuality, spirituality, self-guided development are ideals that Marx and Engels valued above everything else. If they are angry with the bourgeoisie, it is because the bourgeoisie seeks to deny the majority any opportunity to be free. Given Marx and Engels’ adherence to Hegel’s fantastic idea that no one is free as long as one person is in chains, their quarrel with the bourgeoisie is that they sacrifice everybody’s freedom and individuality on capitalism’s altar of accumulation."
And the conclusion to the mess we find ourselves in? Action, of course.
"Collective, democratic political action is our only chance for freedom and enjoyment. And for this, the long nights seem a small price to pay. Humanity may succeed in securing social arrangements that allow for 'the free development of each' as the 'condition for the free development of all'. But, then again, we may end up in the 'common ruin' of nuclear war, environmental disaster or agonising discontent. In our present moment, there are no guarantees. We can turn to the manifesto for inspiration, wisdom and energy but, in the end, what prevails is up to us."
For such a call to action to get results requires a majority of people to accept that the accumulation of wealth is not the key to universal happiness. That, I think, is the barrier to getting through our current predicament. The dogma of hard work and well-deserved wealth is so engrained in our society that I find it hard to imagine a Jeremy Corbyn general election victory, let alone a fundamental re-ordering of society.
However, movements require beginnings and, as Varoufakis points out, it took us 100 years to realise that capitalism was going to fuck things up this badly. It might take another few before the majority (the proletariat?) realise that pursuing more wealth is not the way out of this mess.